Consider a small door with great significance in Princeton University’s historic Maclean House. Architectural historian Constance M. Greiff has done just that. For her the door opens up an important chapter in the university’s history.
Maclean House, the two-story yellow brick house on Nassau Street, serves as the headquarters for the Alumni Council — the group that orchestrates the university’s annual reunions festivities. It was built circa 1756 as “the President’s House.” It rose at the same time as its more imposing neighbor, Nassau Hall, which contained the College of New Jersey, as it was then known, upon its coming to Princeton.
Although the house’s main entrance faces Nassau Street, the little door faces the campus. Greiff believes it was for students to enter the president’s home for classes or tutoring, with the small first-floor room in the southeast corner planned specifically for that purpose.
And why did the trustees create a separate home with a tutoring room for the college’s leader? After all, Nassau Hall — possibly the largest stone building in North America when it was constructed — easily contained the rest of the institution, including classrooms, library, prayer room, dining hall, and dormitory space.
In that era a college president was actively involved in teaching but, Greiff adds with a laugh, “[he] didn’t want to live with the students.”
Connie Greiff is the author of “Princeton Past and Present,” “Lost America,” “The Historic Property Owner’s Handbook,” and other books now considered standard references in their field. She also edited and helped complete the definitive biography of Robert W. Smith, the leading 18th-century builder who is responsible for Nassau Hall and Maclean House. For Greiff, details such as a little door leading into a tutoring room bring alive historic structures, the times in which they were created, and the people who worked or dwelled in them.
Consider, for example, that Nassau Hall was made of local sandstone but Maclean House is fashioned from brick.
At the trustees’ meeting of January 24, 1753 — one of the most important in the history of the future Princeton University — it was decided to accept an offer from Princeton landowners for property and endowment monies in exchange for relocating there. The successful but fledgling College of New Jersey would be moved and expanded from its operation in the Newark manse of its second president, the Rev. Aaron Burr Sr. (father of the American patriot and politician known for his violent rivalry with Alexander Hamilton).
Initial plans for a great hall to house the entire college were also presented at this meeting by Edward Shippen, a trustee from Philadelphia. “He very likely was the one who got hold of Smith,” Greiff says.
Robert Smith (no relation to the present writer) was born in Midlothian, Scotland, in 1722. In coming to his profession, he literally built on his family heritage. There were many masons among his relations and forbearers. He worked as an apprentice in the busy Scottish building trade before emigrating to America in 1748. Smith became one of the master carpenter/builders of Philadelphia (“architect” was not yet generally used as a separate term). Working in the dominant Georgian style, his major successes in that city include Carpenters’ Hall, St. Peter’s Church, and the Christ Church steeple, all of which have literally stood the test of time.
“He probably was well trained in Scotland,” says Greiff. “He did accomplished, high-style buildings in Philadelphia and environs, including of course Princeton. Not many others were doing that kind of work in his time.”
Realizing the scope and potential of the Nassau Hall and President’s House projects, Smith moved to Princeton. He purchased land approximately on the site of today’s East Pyne Hall along the road to the Prospect Farm (a byway that partly survives as Chancellor Way, the university driveway between Firestone Library and the Scheide Caldwell House).
The trustees’ minutes of July 22, 1753, reveal that they were definite about their ambitious plans. Says Greiff, “The part I like a lot is, ‘that the college be built of brick if good brick can be made at Princeton and if it can be got reasonably cheap.’”
And good local brick could be had. “There was probably a brick yard by then in Jugtown [a settlement at today’s Nassau and Harrison streets, named for its ceramics businesses] because you find other brick buildings in Princeton from the same period.”
For example, in 1755 Nathanial Fitz Randolph specifically recorded that one of his children was born in his “brick house.” (Fitz Randolph was part of a large family from Middlesex County near New Brunswick, with members that settled in what is today Mercer County. A wealthy landowner, he donated the four-and-a-half acres that now constitute Princeton University’s central historic campus on which Nassau Hall and Maclean House stand.)
Whether this good local brick could be “got reasonably cheap” seems to have been problematic, however. Fortunately, a local mason named William Worth convinced the trustees to use the abundant local sandstone for Nassau Hall (probably quarried from a source off the lower end of today’s Washington Road near Carnegie Lake). Although Robert Smith is certainly the master builder ultimately responsible for Nassau Hall, based on references in Rev. Burr’s correspondence, Greiff believes that Worth “probably was the mason who built it” during day-to-day operations.
The change in materials from brick to sandstone was fortuitous because Nassau Hall was gutted by terrible fires in 1802 and again in 1855. Both times, Worth’s solidly assembled, two-and-a-half-feet-thick foundations and exterior walls stubbornly survived.
But as noted earlier, the president’s house represented a different function and status from Nassau Hall. Its materials proclaimed this. “Maclean House is built of perfectly good brick,” Greiff says.
Rev. Burr, its first occupant, personally stood the cost of some of the fancier features of the home, including a mirror and a marble hearth brought by Smith from Philadelphia. But Burr scarcely had time to enjoy them. He died of malaria in September, 1758.
Ten presidents of the College of New Jersey lived in the house, starting with Burr and ending with James McCosh (who relocated to Prospect House in 1878 when that mansion and its property were acquired by the school). It was subsequently home to the university’s deans. Then in 1968 it became the headquarters of the alumni association and was renamed in honor of John Maclean, McCosh’s predecessor and the association’s founder.
There had been major changes made to the building in 1855. In addition to room reconfigurations, the roofline was changed, dormers were put in, and a cast iron porch added — all making the building more in keeping with the Italianate Revival restoration being done next door on fire-ravaged Nassau Hall.
But architectural fate kept Maclean House surprisingly well preserved. Sometime in the early 19th century the house had been covered in wooden clapboard, probably to protect it from weathering. While being prepared in the late 1960s for its new use by the alumni council, its clapboard was removed. “And there was the most beautiful, pristine Philadelphia-style brick building you’d ever seen,” Greiff says happily.
In April, 2014, a major restoration of Maclean House was completed. This 10-month project included interior repainting, but special attention was given to the roof and chimneys; plumbing, heating, and air conditioning; and fire alarm systems. Would Robert Smith have approved? It’s likely, since the project was designed by Mills + Schnoering Architects of 200 Forrestal Road, which has a specialty in historic preservation and whose partners include Michael Mills, a Princeton alumnus.
Smith had remained in Princeton after the completion of Nassau Hall and the president’s house, doing work for the family of Aaron Burr Sr. True to the barter-enabled economy of 18th-century America, he was paid both in cash and with meats, timber, and hay from the Burr farm (which lay along what is now Route 27 between Princeton and Kingston).
But the region’s growth and the prospect of new building contracts came more slowly than Smith had hoped. By 1760 he had sold his Princeton property and returned to Philadelphia. He constructed the final home of Benjamin Franklin (which no longer stands, although its foundations, basement, and general outlines are now part of a Philadelphia historic site.) Franklin may have been pleased with the results but not the timetable: Surviving letters reveal him to be impatient with how long Smith was taking to finish.
Smith contributed to the War for Independence by constructing cheveux-de-frise (sunken weighted boxes with projecting metal-tipped wooden spikes) to prevent British warships from sailing up the Delaware. Smith was building barracks for Continental troops at Billingsport, New Jersey, as part of this defensive effort when he died in 1777.
His definitive biography, “Robert Smith: Architect, Builder, Patriot, 1722-1777” (published by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia in 2000) was researched and written by Charles E. Peterson with the assistance of Maria M. Thompson and final editing by Connie Greiff.
The Minnesota-born Peterson (1906-2004) contributed so significantly to the methods and goals of architectural preservation studies and advocacy that he has been called “the godfather of preservation.” He helped establish the Historic American Buildings Survey and the Association for Preservation technology. Later Peterson directed vital preservation work for the National Park Service in his adopted city of Philadelphia.
Of course, Robert Smith attracted Peterson’s intense interest. “Peterson had been collecting material for a long time,” says Greiff. “He’d been doing this since the 1950s when he published first on Carpenter’s Hall.”
Greiff met Peterson around 1969 when he was consulting on a restoration of Bainbridge House, the headquarters of the Historical Society of Princeton, of which Greiff was a leading member. Then, a disaster: “He lost his briefcase with all his research on Robert Smith. I went over to Rare Books [at Firestone Library] and recopied all the material for him. That was the start of the relationship.”
Constance M. Greiff came to her own expertise in architectural history by stages. Her father taught Latin and Greek at Boy’s High School in Brooklyn. He had been born in that borough, but the family lived in Queens and finally then in Manhattan, on 53rd Street between Park and Lexington avenues (“A place I scarcely recognize any more,” Greiff adds).
Her mother was a homemaker, and her sister was an art history major. Connie herself studied Italian Renaissance painting at Vassar College, but soon became more interested in architecture. She met her husband Robert, an engineer (and later an executive search specialist), when he attended social weekends at her college.
Connie and Bob lived in Chicago and in New York before moving to Hopewell in 1958. They relocated to Princeton in 1960 (where, in addition to the Historical Society, Connie was an active and knowledgeable member of the Planning Board). The Greiffs moved to Rocky Hill in 1981. Along the way, Connie founded Heritage Studies, which consulted on architectural restoration and historic site designation projects. (Disclosure: the writer worked there for several years in the 1990s, an experience that heightened his own journalistic interest in history). Today, the Greiffs are enjoying retirement at Princeton Windrows.
Soon after moving to Princeton, Greiff met future collaborator Mary W. Gibbons on the train to New York. Gibbons turned out to have attended Vassar a few years behind Greiff and to share an interest in Princeton’s great early-19th-century carpenter/builder Charles Steadman. (Gibbons and her husband had just purchased a Steadman house standing at 12 Morven Place.) Greiff and Gibbons created a seminal 1963 exhibition, “300 Years of Princeton Architecture,” at Borough Hall, which led to their equally landmark book “Princeton Architecture.”
Greiff subsequently facilitated a gift to Gibbons that was also a significant act of historic preservation. A cast iron fence around Nassau Hall, erected circa 1838, had been replaced in 1905 during the building of the Fitz Randolph Gate. Woodrow Wilson, then the university’s president, acquired it for the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Princeton, of which he was a congregant.
In 1964 the church had the old iron fence removed. Slated to be scrapped, it was purchased from the contractor by Connie Greiff, Elizabeth Menzies (pronounced “MEN-keys” in the Scottish style), and Rosalie Green (then head of the Index of Christian Art, headquartered at the university). They proudly presented it to Mary Gibbons, who happily reinstalled on her property, where it may still be seen today.
“All of my American architecture is self-taught,” Greiff says. And to study the subject in those pre-Internet days, she says, “You went to the New Jersey State Museum, the Princeton University archives, and Firestone Library itself.”
“Research was a very different thing in the ’60s. It was a lot of shoe leather and a lot of note taking on index cards. I had a loose leaf notebook with various sections. It was a different world,” she says.
How different? Greiff recalls doing research in the 1960s on the Cooper Hewitt Company’s contribution to the second rebuilding of Nassau Hall. The New York Historical Society archives had copies of the firm’s letter books. But these had been made by an antiquated contact process that rendered them mirror images of the originals.
In this pre-digital era, Constance Greiff hit upon a non-digital — and perfectly effective — solution. “I found a drug store and bought a little hand mirror,” she smiles. “Then I went back and sat there and read the pages that way.”
It was the kind of simple yet innovative solution that Robert Smith might have applied to a design problem in one of his own projects. And just as contemporary architects have restored Maclean House and other historic Smith structures for future generations to enjoy, scholars like Constance M. Greiff and Charles Peterson have restored their carpenter-builder’s name to its deserved place in American history.